Who is UK’s PM candidate Rishi Sunak?

Rishi Sunak is currently the favourite in the race to succeed Britain’s outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Rishi Sunak
Sunak launches his campaign for the Conservative Party leadership in London [File: Alberto Pezzali/AP Photo]

Rishi Sunak is currently the favourite in the race to succeed United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but opinions on him are divided.

To some, he is a child of immigrants who has made it to the top of British society and politics under adverse circumstances.

To others, he is simply the embodiment of Westminster, with friends who are “aristocrats” and from the “upper class”, but not from the “working class”.

Moreover, according to a recent YouGov study, 40 percent consider him to be incompetent. Yet, he is among the final three contestants and Johnson’s most likely successor.

Prior to moving into politics, Sunak studied at Oxford and Stanford before working as an analyst at Goldman Sachs investment bank and then as a hedge fund manager. He became known to the public when Johnson made him the chancellor of the exchequer in 2020.

Barely in office, Sunak faced the coronavirus pandemic as the first significant endurance test, but it also allowed him to establish a profile.

He became popular with the public with his decisions to continue wage payments, furlough, loans for ailing companies and vouchers for restaurant visits – essentially via carte blanche from Johnson.

“Sunak was operating under a PM who was keen to spend money, particularly on infrastructure projects designed to deliver the levelling up agenda and more generally because Johnson made spending promises without always considering how to pay for them,” Neil Carter, professor of politics at the University of York, told Al Jazeera.

“But certain actions backfired – the eat out to help out initiative may have saved the restaurant sector but almost certainly contributed to the devastating second COVID wave in autumn 2020,” he said.

Nonetheless, parallel to the growing new debt in Great Britain in 2020, Sunak’s popularity also grew.

Johnson was seemingly inclined to let Sunak do the work – arguably to a fault, Stephen Elstub, reader in British politics, told Al Jazeera.

“During the pandemic, when the government was making regular televised briefings, the chancellor got to announce the government handouts while the prime minister was telling us how many people had died and that we all needed to stay at home,” he said.

‘Fiscal conservative’

With the end of all lockdown restrictions earlier this year, however, Sunak changed his approach for rapidly reducing government debt – via higher taxes, costing him sympathy while people grapple with a record rise in the cost of living.

“His significant increases in corporation tax and national insurance were attacked from across the political spectrum for damaging business, and because national insurance is a tax on workers, so it falls disproportionately on younger people,” Carter said.

However, tightening government spending is in line with Sunak’s political views.

“We know for sure that he is pro-Brexit and anti-immigration. He describes himself as a ‘fiscal Conservative’ advocating for a small state and low taxes. All of this would put him on the right of the party. However, clearly, he is a pragmatist as well,” Elstub said.

However, Carter said the Conservative Party is a “strange beast these days”, with the right wing not being too fond of him.

“He is the candidate of the centre-left of the Tories,” he said.

On top of the political challenges, the local media this year revealed dubious tax avoidance strategies by his wife, while Sunak was accused of having kept his options open for emigration to the United States through a green card.

“The leaking – presumably by the PM’s team – of the stories about him having a US green card until very recently and his wife’s non-domicile tax status [due to her being an Indian citizen and her dividend payments coming from abroad] – and more generally her wealth – appeared to have put paid to his PM aspirations and carefully manicured public image,” said Carter.

In addition, many Tories see Sunak as a traitor, whom he only ousted by resigning from Johnson. A document was even circulating in Tory WhatsApp groups, the “Dirty Dossier”, which portrays Sunak as aloof and sneaky.

Nonetheless, among the three contenders left in the prime ministerial race – junior trade minister Penny Mordaunt, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Sunak – the latter, remains the favourite.

“He seems more popular than the other contenders and is perceived to be the most consistent performer in their two televised debates amongst Conservative and Labour voters. Despite this, the opinion polls suggest that most people think Sunak would make a bad Prime Minister. Currently, Sunak is less popular than [Labour leader Keir] Starmer too,” Elstub said.

Source: Al Jazeera